The Time Machine


H.G. Wells

Futuristic time-travel narratives afford writers and readers an experience that seems to come naturally to the imagination: the experience of speculation, asking what-if. Reading the signs of the times and projecting current trends into future realities. Wells’ The Time Machine is a progenitor of this genre (in fact coining the very term “time machine”), arriving at a high point of the industrialization, urbanization, and scientification of Western society.


When a work of fiction looks into the future, it tends to see progress or regression at a dramatic pace and scale, in turn using that projected state of affairs to comment on the way we live now. What often appears as progress in these novels and stories can turn out to be something quite else.


Wells captures this tension in our excerpt here with one oxymoron. As the Time Traveler explores this new world he has alighted upon, he says, “As I walked I was watching for every impression that could possibly help to explain the condition of ruinous splendour in which I found the world - for ruinous it was.” Ruinous splendour. This phrase points to the two areas of concern for the Time Traveler when observing this strange world: the interaction of the human-made structures with the natural world, and the implications for that relationship with the makeup of society, the way of life. These two concerns point to one of the main concerns of futuristic science-fiction today: the effects of climate change. There is a lengthy stretch in our excerpt in which the Time Traveler combines these concerns - the natural and the social - in his assessments:

There were no hedges, no signs of proprietary rights, no evidences of agriculture; the whole earth had become a garden … The whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating; things will move faster and faster toward the subjugation of Nature. In the end, wisely and carefully we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable life to suit our human needs.


This adjustment, I say, must have been done, and done well; done indeed for all Time, in the space of Time across which my machine had leapt. The air was free from gnats, the earth from weeds or fungi; everywhere were fruits and sweet and delightful flowers; brilliant butterflies flew hither and thither. The ideal of preventative medicine was attained. Diseases had been stamped out. I saw no evidence of any contagious diseases during all my stay. And I shall have to tell you later that even the processes of putrefaction and decay had been profoundly affected by these changes.


There is a feedback loop, the Time Traveler observes, when this “readjustment” occurs. Becoming more attuned to natural rhythms allows a community to build in a way that perpetuates that attunement. This results in a change of culture:


Social triumphs, too, had been effected … Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is great strength, would become weakness. Even in our own time certain tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, are a constant source of failure. Physical courage and the love of battle, for instance, are no great help - may even be hindrances - to a civilised man. And in a state of physical balance and security, power, intellectual as well as physical, would be out of place.


And there we arrive at another phrase that might give us pause: a civilised man. Without reading the rest of The Time Machine (I hope that you do), we can nonetheless identify something lurking behind this “ruinous splendour.” No utopia, at least in literature, is not without its shadow. In The Time Machine, they are Morlocks, beings who live underground and whose labor (and suffering) make the world of the Eloi (the “civilised” beings the Time Traveler befriends) possible.


It is the conflict between the Eloi and Morlocks that drives the main drama of The Time Machine. This conflict should cause readers to consider who gets left out of our own “ruinous splendour,” and what rationales we invent to keep them out.


But at this point we can think of the book in a way that connects us to this series on time. In the era of climate change and the Anthropocene, literature increasingly ponders, as does Wells here, deep time. The disastrous political situation in the United States will yield (I must believe it, to remain sane) deeper awareness of and engagement with the needs of the world. This must be the long-term view. But our day-to-day lives, for people who care about what is happening, is structured around the moment. What new scandal can the news present to me today? Where can I find the talking points that I need for happy hour or Sunday dinner? What is happening now? Literature has the power to remove us from this cultural and psychological tailspin. By thinking, as does Darwin, the third figure in this series, in terms of durations beyond a single life-span, new doors of perception open. This is what Wells is after in The Time Machine, which concludes with The Time Traveler’s sojourns to the very ends (conclusions) of life itself. He sees firsthand how it all will play out. This destiny, the extinguishing of life, seems inevitable. So, what is all the fuss about in the here and now?

Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor
September 2018